by Jenny Truax on October 28, 2010
From: Jesus Radicals
A few years ago at a Karen House community meeting, Tony brought a reading for discussion. He had just finished the book “Are Prisons Obsolete?” by Angela Davis, and read some quotes, asking us to consider the question: are prisons, in fact, obsolete?
To be honest, I was shocked by the question. I considered the prison, while probably unjust, to be as ingrained an institution as churches, schools, and apple pie. I understood the Catholic Worker Aims and Means, but had never applied them to the U.S. system of punishment. As anarchists and pacifists, we in the Catholic Worker try to reflect on the root causes of violence, where resources are allocated, and how systems (like the prison system) affect the poor. We believe that a decentralized society might better serve people’s needs better. At Karen House, we see that the majority of the women who stay with us have either been in jail before, or have a family member who has been in jail. Many of their offenses were drug-related, and many of their lives have been uprooted by long incarcerations. At Karen House, we read in the papers about white-collar criminals (who may have stolen millions) and even peers receiving very light penalties, and we live with women who have received years-long sentences for drug and poverty/property related offenses.
Most of us have a general sense that laws in the U.S. overly-penalize people who happen to be poor, and who happen to not be white. But we also have a deeply-held belief that the system, though flawed, is basically just, and that wrong-doers deserve the punishment they receive. We like the neat package of “3 strikes you’re out” and automatic sentencing. In the words of Angela Davis: “Prison frees us from considering the complex problems of racism and poverty (and increasingly, global capitalism,) by creating an abstract place in which to put evil-doers.”1
Around the time of the American Revolution, new forms of punishment for criminals were adopted in the United States. Before this time, criminals awaited death or physical punishment while in a prison. Later, the penitentiary itself became the consequence. Inmates would become rehabilitated, or penitent, with manual labor and solitude to reflect upon wrong-doings. This change was seen as a progressive, more humane method of dealing with criminals.
The prison system in the U.S. remained generally unaltered until the Civil War ended. Following the Civil War, slavery was abolished as a private institution, but the cleverly worded 13th Amendment provided a very large exception, stating: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime…shall exist within the United States.” In the ensuing months and years, states revised the Slave Codes into new “Black Codes,” imprisoning former slaves for acts such as missing work, handling money carelessly, and performing “insulting gestures.” A massive influx of former slaves into the penitentiary resulted, a new form of slavery was born, and the racialization of the U.S. punishment system took root. The unpaid labor of the newly created, mostly black, convict lease system helped the South achieve industrialization.
Read more here on the Jesus Radicals site.